Question: Can you tell me if Webster burned down his apartment with fireworks or a chemistry set? I really need to know. Phil B., Milwaukee, Wis.
Televisionary: Oh, come now, Phil. I take TV kitsch about as seriously as anyone I know, but even I question your urgency. A man in a burning house really needs to know where the nearest exit is. A bomb squad really needs to know which wire to cut. A vampire really needs to know when daybreak is so that... well, you get the picture. Nevertheless, I'm here with an answer 'cause I really need this job.
Wee Webster Long (Emmanuel Lewis) was playing with his chemistry set, which he wasn't supposed to do without adult supervision, when he accidentally immolated his apartment. It was but one of the no-good-deed-goes-unpunished effects that the little tyke had on the lives of sportscaster George Papadopolis (Alex Karras) and wife Katherine (Susan Clark, Karras's real-life spouse), who were stuck with him because former gridiron great George promised a teammate he'd care for his kids if anything ever happened to him and his wife and then something did.
Oddly enough, the adorable little guy had the same effect on Karras and Clark, since they originally signed on for a show called Another Ballgame, which was supposed to focus a little more on them. Instead, when the ABC show debuted for the first of its four seasons in September 1983, it was called Webster and it was all Lewis, proving once again the old adage about working with kids and animals.
Not that it was a bad thing, of course. Just as Webster's junior-chemist hijinks resulted in the family moving into a nifty new Victorian house, the refocusing on the cutest of the three made for a hit and those behind the show knew it well. "I don't think the original project would have run more than 13 weeks," Webster director Joel Zwick told People in 2000.
Lewis, who at 12 years old was only 40 inches tall when the show launched, had that kind of attraction for adults what those in the industry describe as the "awwww" effect. It started when his mother took him to audition for a TV commercial. "As soon as Manny walked through the door, the producer said, 'I want that kid right there,'" she told TV Guide in 1984. When then ABC Entertainment President Lewis Erlicht saw the ad on TV, he said the same thing. Then, in a meeting with Karras, Clark, a roomful of agents and development people and writer Stu Silver, Erlicht explained how things would be.
"Lew Erlicht showed us the Burger King commercials and then he said, 'I don't know what the show is, but I want you all together, you'll work it out,'" Clark later recalled. "I said, 'How do we have a black child?' and he said, 'Stu will work it out.' Then he sent us all to lunch."
Work it out Stu did and the pint-sized Lewis became a heavyweight on the Paramount lot, with a custom-designed office and dressing room, his own computer and teacher and a guard who chauffered him around in a golf cart. He even made studio history by getting permission to bring his dog to work. "When the security people called to say there was a big problem with Emmanuel's dog, I had visions of a Saint Bernard running wild," said Paramount Executive Vice President John Pike. "But Pee-Wee turned out to be just that the smallest dog [a shih tzu] I've ever seen. So I got the very strict studio rule against dogs waived in this case."
Still, Lewis was a child, and all the rule-bending in the world couldn't stop a boy cooped up on a set from losing it once in a while. So Zwick offered himself up as a personal punching bag. "He has times when he gets really upset about things," the director said in 1986, "and on occasion I've had to take him off the set and let him beat up on me physically pounding on me for a while, because he's angry and won't release it. He's a very outgoing person, and when he clams up and goes inside himself, I know something has hurt him or made him mad. He might feel he was not listened to or that he's been abused somehow, or it might just be the nature of this business where you're constantly being pushed to churn out material. Or it might be that he is just a kid, after all, and has the emotional swings of a kid."
Whatever it was, rest assured Zwick wouldn't be wise to let the actor pound on him now. He's still small in stature, but the adult Lewis has black belts in both American karate and tae kwon do. "I don't worry about fighting someone, but I am very confident that if there's an altercation, you're not going to be able to count me out," he told Jet in 2001. "We're going to both know that we've been in a situation, and one might know more than the other, and I'm not really counting on it being me."